• Anne Lamott
  • July 23, 2019
    Read, recorded or researched
As much about life as it is about writing. It helps both fronts, in equal measure. It’s funny, encouraging and insightful, which makes the experience of reading this book; a pleasure. Don’t look at your feet to see if you’re doing it right. Just dance.

Getting Started

  • Good writing is about telling the truth. We’re a species that needs and wants to understand who we are.
  • But writing is difficult. It’s indescribably painful. It’s the same for everyone.
  • The best writers, like the best musicians, sportsmen, actors practice. Day in day out, pick a time and write at that time every day. Tell your story, whatever is in you.

Short Assignments

  • Don’t sit down expecting to write an epic.
  • Just do one short assignment. Write a paragraph, describe a character, just take it bird by bird.
  • Writing can be a pretty desperate endeavour, because it’s about some of our deepest needs: our need to be visible, to be heard, our need to make sense of our lives, to wake up and grow and belong.
“Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”

Shitty First Drafts

  • No great writer, or writer you love, feels confident and happy with their work when they sit down to write.
  • No one writes elegant first drafts.
  • Begin with terrible first efforts. Start somewhere, get it down and carry on.
  • First draft is the down draft - just get it down.
  • Second draft is the up draft - fix it up.
  • Third is the dental draft - check every tooth.


  • It’s the voice of the oppressor and will keep you from writing your shitty first draft.
  • Make a mess. That’s what artistry is about. Nothing starts perfect.
  • Think of children. They need to make messes in order to find out who we are and why we’re here.
  • Learn to be compassionate company to yourself. You wouldn’t read a close friend’s piece of work and roll your eyes, or screw up their paper. Help yourself.

School Lunches

  • Start with a seemingly benign topic which brings out a stream of emotion and memories - like school lunches - within which something really important might come out.
  • It’s a good place to start a first draft.


  • When you sit down to write something, you can’t - and, in fact, you’re not supposed to - know exactly what the picture is going to look like until it’s finished developing.
  • Like a Polaroid.  


  • Become really familiar and specific with your characters. Know what the like and dislike, and don’t protect them from the world you write about. There’s nothing more boring.
  • The story’s narrator has to be likeable. Nothing holds a story together better. If your narrator is someone who’s take on things fascinated you, it isn’t really going to matter if nothing much happens for a long time.


  • Plot grows out of character. Characters shouldn’t serve as pawns for your plot. Focus on who the people in your story are, get to know them really well and something is bound to happen.
  • Make sure the story/dream is vivid and continuous. You have to make each scene slide into the next. Readers can’t fill your gaps.
  • Useful formula: ABCDE - Action, Background, Development, Climax and Ending. Begin with action that’s compelling to draw us in, make us want to know more. Background is where you let us see and know who these people are, how they’ve come to be together, what was going on before the story started. Then develop these people, so we learn what they care most about. The plot will grow out of that. Move them along until everything comes to together in the climax, after which at least one of your people is profoundly changed. And then bring it to a conclusion.  


  • Good dialogue can transform your writing. It changes the story’s pace and lets the reader eavesdrop on the characters’ lives.
  • To write dialogue, sound out the words and make sure each character can be identified by what they say. Dialogue is the way to nail a character. Maybe try putting two characters together who can’t stand each other.
  • Just write to explore the way your characters speak and act. Keep writing and only when finished, leave what rings true and delete the rest. Remember, no one is reading your first drafts.
  • You create your story, characters and dialogue in your unconscious. You don’t have any access to it. That’s why you just have to write and let your unconscious take over.

Plot Treatment

  • Writers don’t know what’s going to happen in their books. The plot isn’t outlined. Writers flail around, and grow despondent, while they find a plot and structure that work.
  • Just keep going, plugging away. Re-write, leave, come back, keep going. Get in so deep with the characters that the story finishes itself.

How Do You Know When You’re Done?

  • There will always be more you could do, but remind yourself that perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor.
  • Finishing your work is like putting an octopus to bed. You get a bunch of the octopus’s arms nearly tucked under the covers but an arm or two are still flailing around. When you lose energy and enthusiasm to grapple with the octopus, that probably means you’re done.

The Writing Frame of Mind

Looking Around

  • Writing is about learning to pay attention and to communicate what’s going on.
  • The writer is a person who is standing apart, standing there alone but choosing to take a few notes.
  • Your job is to present clearly your point of view, your line of vision. Your job is to see people as they really are, and to do this, you have to know who you are in the most compassionate possible sense. Then you can recognise others.
  • You have to practice to look at yourself with compassionate detachment, so you can look out at the world and see all those other things with respect.
  • To be a writer, you have to be reverent - in awe, or as presence in and openness to the world. There’s ecstasy in paying attention.
  • To be engrossed by something outside ourselves is a powerful antidote for the rational mind.

The Moral Point of View

  • If you find that you start a number of stories or pieces you don’t ever bother finishing, that you lose interest or faith in along the way, it may be that there’s nothing at their centre about which you care passionately.
  • The purpose of most great writing seems to be to reveal in an ethical light who we are.
  • If your deepest beliefs drive your writing they will not only keep your work from being contrived but will help you discover what drives your characters.
  • Tell the truth and write about freedom and fight for it, however you can, and you will be richly rewarded.  
To be a good writer, you not only have to write a great deal but you have to care. You do not have to have a complicated moral philosophy. But a writer always tries, I think, to be a part of the solution, to understand a little about life and to pass this on.


  • Listen to your broccoli, and your broccoli will tell you how to eat it.
  • You need your intuition.
  • You get your confidence and intuition back by trusting yourself, by being militantly on your own side. You need to trust yourself, especially on a first draft, where amid the anxiety and self doubt, there should be a real sense of your imagination and your memories walking and woolgathering, tramping the hills, romping all over the place. Trust them. Don’t look at your feet to see if you’re doing it right. Just dance.
  • You get your intuition when you make space for it, when you stop the chattering of the rational mind. Rationality squeezes out much that is rich and juicy and fascinating.
  • Take the attitude that what you’re thinking and feeling is valuable stuff, and then be naive enough to get it all down on paper.
  • Writing is about hypnotising yourself into believing in yourself, getting some work done, then unhypnotising yourself and going over the material coldly.

Radio Station KFKD

  • This is the noise you hear all day, it’s called K-Fucked. In the right ear, you get an endless stream of self-aggrandisement, how special and wonderful you are. Out the left ear, you get rap songs of self loathing, which list everything you’ve done badly and struggle with.
  • The push and pull of K-Fucked stifles any chance you have to listen to your broccoli.
  • Whenever you get this stream of thought, pause, breathe, calm down and start again. You have to align yourself with the river of the story, the river of the unconscious, of memory and sensibility, which can then pour through you onto the paper.


  • One of the most difficult voices in your head to subdue is jealousy.
  • Jealousy is such a direct attack on whatever measure of confidence you’ve been able to muster.
  • But you will have to deal with it. It’ll happen because public herd mentality isn’t swayed by talent/magical writing but by talk shows and movie producers.
  • Jealousy is one of the occupational hazards of being a writer, and the most degrading.
  • To help...
  • Live as if you’re dying, because that belief can set you free. Dying people teach you to pay attention and to forgive and not to sweat the small things.
  • “I get up. I walk. I fall down. Meanwhile, I keep dancing.” (Hillel)

Help Along the Way

Index Cards

  • Write down any thought, story, memory or sensation when you experience it.

Calling Around

  • There are an enormous amount of people out there with invaluable information to share with you, and all you have to do is pick up the phone. They love it when you do, just as you love it when people ask if they can pick your brain about something you happen to know a great deal about.


  • When you’re really stuck and filled with despair and self loathing and boredom, try telling part of your history in the form of a letter.
  • Address it to your children, parents or a friend. Write their name at the top and explain that you’re going to tell them part of your story, entrust it to them.

Writer’s Block

  • The word block suggests you’re stuck, when the truth is you’re empty.
  • Accept you’re not in a productive creative period. Get one page of anything written, 300 words of memories or dreams or stream of consciousness on how much you hate writing. Then just walk away.
  • Live as if you’re dying. It’ll give you a chance to experience some real presence. Instead of being miserable, staring at your screen, ask yourself what you’d do today if you were to die tomorrow.
  • It’s so important to make a commitment to finishing stories or sections. There are too many reasons not to write, to give up. You need to practice and you can’t practice if you don’t finish.
  • What you write is important: life is like a recycling centre, where all the concerns and dramas of humankind get recycled back and forth across the universe. But what you have to offer is your own sensibility, maybe your own sense of humour or insider pathos or meaning.

Publication - And Other Reasons to Write

Finding Your Voice

  • “I love to enter into these fantastical worlds where we feel like we’re looking through the wrong end of the binoculars, where everything is tiny and pretty and rich, because real life is often big and messy and hurtful and drab.”
  • We write to expose the unexposed. If there’s one door in the castle you’ve been told not to go through, you must. Most human beings are dedicated to keeping that one door shut. But the writer’s job is to see what’s behind it, to see the bleak unspeakable stuff, and to turn the unspeakable into words - not just into any words but if we can, into rhythm and blues.
  • You can’t do this without discovering your own true voice. And you can’t find your true voice, peer behind the door and report honestly if your parents are reading over your shoulder. Send them away.


  • “If you’re not enough before the gold medal, you won’t be enough with it.” Don’t expect publication, an award, a new job or salary to change how you feel.

The Last Class

  • Becoming a writer is about becoming conscious. When you’re conscious and writing from a place of insight and simplicity and real caring about the truth, you have the ability to throw the lights on for your reader. He or she will recognise his or her life and truth in what you say, in the pictures you have painted, and this decreases the terrible sense of isolation we have all had too much of.